Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On becoming a gainfully employed (but underpaid) hopeful environmentalist

The road to becoming a gainfully employed, hopeful environmentalist is long. I speak from experience. While it can be rewarding, it can be equally frustrating. In response to an assignment from my Long Form Journalism professor to write a story as a list, here I offer a step-by-guide guide, alongside a chronicle of my own journey thus far. Despite its hint of cynicism, my hope is that this “guide” has at least a little value as insight for jobseekers.

Step 1: If unemployed and unattached, move to one of America’s liberal bubbles. Examples include Madison, WI; Seattle, WA; the entire state of Vermont; and Portland, OR. But be warned, you are probably not the only hopeful, unemployed environmentalist to move there with dreams of being paid to save the world. And you may wonder, why move to a place that is already relatively environmentally savvy, when you could make more meaningful change in “unconverted” territory? While I won’t discourage that option, if you are just starting out and want to learn the “best practices,” living where they already drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak, might be more nurturing for your blossoming career. At least, that’s what I told myself.

After returning from the Peace Corps, and then from a summer stint as a seasonal worker in Alaska, I decided to follow my passions and head west to Portland, OR. I was ready to blossom into the environmentalist I’d always wanted to be. I was sure my deep-seated passion would be enough to land me a glamorous job at an environmental nonprofit. Little did I know I would soon come face-to-face with my naivety. 

Step 2: Set up informational interviews with employed environmentalists, whose jobs you covet.

Within the first few weeks of landing in my new home, I had spoken to probably a dozen people working for environmental nonprofits, eager for any advice or leads on getting a job just like theirs. The reoccurring advice was to volunteer to get my foot in the door. In other words, swallow your pride, your Bachelors degree and your two years working in the developing world (which you may think looks good on your resume, but probably won’t get you that foot in the door), and work for free.

Step 3: Face it. Take the advice. Start working for free.

And so, I swallowed my pride, my Bachelors degree (it was in German, after all), and my previous experience (now rendered meaningless), and started volunteering at two nonprofits. This was it, my foot in the door. I was meeting people, making connections, and doing meaningful work (in the guise of menial tasks). I would land a real job soon enough. Or so I thought.

Step 4: Attend the local “Green Drinks,” but don’t go with high expectations.

Many liberal bubbles have a monthly social and networking group called Green Drinks. In a sense, it’s the gathering for hopeful environmentalists, especially unemployed hopeful environmentalists eager to make connections that will lead to gainful employment. At my first Green Drinks, I quickly found out that unemployed hopeful environmentalists were pretty much the only people that came to Green Drinks. As we went around the circle introducing ourselves, each of our stories sounded very similar: “I just moved her from [insert East Coast/Midwestern city], because I’m passionate about the environment and I want to make a difference in the world. I am currently unemployed, but I’m here to meet people and get advice on how to get my foot in the door.” This would not be the place to make meaningful career connections.

Step 5: Don’t give up.

Determined not to be disheartened by the month that had passed and my persisting unemployed status, I continued to work for free and apply to every environmental nonprofit job I could find, for which I was even remotely qualified.

Step 6: Land the part-time internship you are probably over-qualified for.

Minor success. One of my volunteer gigs turned into a part-time, paid internship. Sure, the work was not very stimulating, but I was finally getting compensated. Progress.

Step 7:
Don’t give up.

After three months, 12 job interviews, and two near hires (to find out I was both their second choices), I still had no permanent job. Nearly heart broken, I was stubborn not to succumb to my frustration, throw in the towel, and just get a desk job at a law firm. I still had my part-time gig. But more importantly, I still had my passion.

Step 8:
Get hired, but on contract.

Then, eight months into my Portland life, the universe played a funny trick on me. One of the organizations I had interviewed with a couple months prior contacted me out of the blue, asking if I wanted to come work full time-for them. Naturally, I say yes. Sure, it was on contract, but they said it likely would eventually become a permanent position. Progress!

Step 9: Don’t give up.

Six months later, settled into my job and feeling good about my work, the promise of a permanent position had still not been made. Reluctantly, I began to look for other jobs, seeking security, having realized I cannot survive on passion alone. 
Step 10: Finally, land the permanent position…with benefits!

Seven months into the job, they finally offered me the permanent position. I became a salaried hopeful environmentalist…underpaid, but with benefits! Finally, I could put my passion full steam ahead.

Step 11: Figure out that the permanent position you finally landed is not exactly what you want to be doing.

About 10 months into my job, I began to realize it was not how I wanted to use my passion. Sure, I was thankful to have job. But the glamor of it began to fade, and I could feel my passion starting to become jaded by the under-stimulating work that dominated my day-to-day. How could I save the environment with jaded passion?

Step 12: Don’t give up. Make opportunities for yourself.

I was determined not give up on my dream or my mission. I just needed to take the initiative to open opportunities for myself to use my passion effectively. And I did. I took on projects that would certainly lead me to the work that I really wanted to do. Sure, I was now working ridiculous hours for the still crappy salary and letting some of my obligations slide a little. But I was using my real talents, and isn’t that better on the whole? And can’t we just hire interns to take over those tasks that I was always over-qualified to do anyway?

Step 13: Realize that, to be doing what you really want to be doing, you need to go to grad school.

No. I realized working 50+ hours a week is not sustainable. Neither could I manage that many different projects without letting the quality of my work slide. And, no, we can’t hire interns to take over those tasks. So, I realized my only hope for using my passion and talents to save the environment was to finally go to grad school.

Step 14: Apply to grad school. Get into grad school. Leave your beloved liberal bubble for another liberal bubble to attend grad school.

And so I did. That summer, I found myself leaving my beloved Portland and migrating back east for the mighty Midwest—specifically to Madison, WI—to begin grad school.

The next four steps are pretty self-explanatory.

Step 15: Learn more about the world’s environmental problems than you ever knew before.

Step 16: Begin to lose hope that we can get ourselves out of this mess.

Step 17: Start a blog about hope, and hope it gives you hope.

Step 18: Don’t give up.

Note to the reader: This guide is not yet complete. Please check back in five to ten years.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I think that there is a lot of relevance for anyone pursuing their passion, I had some similar experiences trying to break into science writing (although I admit I threw in the towel and returned to grad school after only a year). I think it is great that you relay that "don't give up" is a multi-step process.

  2. lovely!
    yes, one should not give up; yes, grad school is an undeniable prescription for further success; yes working for free is painful; and yes, there is hope after all.
    I lived in Seattle for about seven years and loved it. But I have to tell you 200 rainy days was a bit much for me. After all, I am from the hot exotic troubled Middle East.

  3. Great job, Jenny, of turning a list not only into a personal story but a message about the importance of passion for a good cause in one's life. I'll definitely check back in five years!

  4. Hooray! I'm reading and enjoying...

  5. Great post! I love how you structured your story and enjoyed reading about your personal journey. An inspiring read for anyone with a message!

  6. Great post! I can definitely relate to feeling frustrated by the lack of progress with job-hunting after acquiring that college degree. I spent 6 months working for low pay as an intern, waiting tables, and working as a cashier at a department store before I was offered a job on Capitol Hill in Washington. As you said, above all it's important not to give up! :)